Sunday, September 23, 2012
+ A few weeks ago I preached about my being an Oblate of St. Benedict. An oblate, just to refresh ourselves, is a person who promises to follow the Rule of St. Benedict in their daily lives and to pray the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer every day. For twenty years last August, I was an Oblate of Blue Cloud Abbey in Marvin, South Dakota—a Roman Catholic Benedictine Monastery. But, of course, they closed in August and I lamented the fact a couple of weeks ago in my sermon that I felt a bit aimless—I was an Oblate without a monastery.
Well, not so anymore. This past week I officially transferred my Oblation to St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, just outside St. Cloud. I feel very good about transferring my oblation there. It has been an important place to me for over twenty-five years of my life. So, life is feeling a little more like normal for me today.
As I have mentioned many times, my life as on Oblate is very important to me—both as a Christian and as a priest. And so a move like this is a momentous one in my personal life—it wasn’t an easy decision to make. Probably the hallmark of my life as an Oblate and a priest, as I mentioned last week, is my praying every day of the Daily Office—the services of Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer.
Which led me last week to preach about the psalms. Now, I was a little apprehensive about preaching about the psalms. Poetry—which of course the psalms are, they’re poems—is such a fickle thing. I can say that: I’m a poet. And poetry is one of those things that people either get or don’t get. I know: I’ve heard some of your comments about my own poems, when you’ve read my books. But, I actually heard some really nice comments about last week’s sermon, and about poetry in general.
See what happens when you do things like that? You get another sermon on the psalms.
Now, today, I am going to preach on our psalm. But this isn’t one of those nice psalms we had like last week. The psalm we encounter today is one of those psalms that makes us stop and take notice. There’s a line in it that makes us stop short.
Occasionally, in the Psalms, we do come across language that we might find a bit—how shall we say—uncomfortable. Often in the Lectionary of the Church—the assigned readings from the Bible that we share each Sunday morning—some of those phrases that some people might find offensive are found bracketed. In those cases, we have the option to not use such language. The language, after all, is violent often. It is not the language good Christian people should use.
We get a peek at this language in today’s Psalm This verse is not bracketed—it’s actually fairly minor in tone compared to some of the bracketed verses in other Psalms. But for many us, as we sing it, it might give us pause.
The verse I’m speaking of is this one,
render evil to those who spy on me;
in your faithfulness destroy them.
This is not the kind of prayer we have been taught to pray as followers of Jesus. After all, as followers of Jesus, we’re taught to love and love fully and completely. We certainly weren’t taught to pray for God to destroy our enemies. We have been taught to pray for our enemies, not pray against them. None of us would ever even think of praying to God to destroy anyone.
But the fact is, although we find it hard to admit at times, we do actually think and feel this way. Even if we might not actually say it, we sometimes secretly wish the worse for those people who have wronged us in whatever way.
I like to think that, rather than this being negative or wrong, that we should, in fact, be honest about it. We sometimes get angry at people. We sometimes don’t like people. And sometimes we might just hate people. It’s a fact of life—not one we want to readily admit to, but it is there. Sometimes it is very, very hard to love our enemies. Sometimes it is probably the hardest thing in the world to pray for people who have hurt us or wronged us.
So, what do we do in those moments when we can’t pray for our enemies—when we can’t forgive? Well, most of us just simply close up. We put up a wall and we swallow that anger and we let it fester inside us. Especially those of us who come from good Scandinavian stock.
We simply aren’t the kind of people who wail and complain about our anger or our losses. I think we may tend to deny it.
But what about that anger in our relationship to God? What about that anger when it comes to following Jesus? Well, again, we probably don’t recognize our anger before God nor do we bring it before God. We, I think, look at our anger as something outside our following of Jesus.
And that is where Psalms of this sort come in. It is in those moments when we don’t bring our anger and our frustration before God, that we need those verses like the one we encounter in today’s Psalm. When we look at those poets who wrote this Psalm—when we recognize her or him as a Jew in a time of war or famine—we realize that for the poet—for the Psalmist—it was natural to bring everything before God. Everything. Not just the good stuff. Not just the nice stuff. But that bad stuff too.
And I think this is the best lesson we can learn from the Psalmist than anything else. We all have a “shadow side,” shall we say. We all have a dark side. And we need to remember that we can not hide that “shadow side” of ourselves from God. This is the self maybe no one else has ever seen—not even our spouse or partner. Maybe it is a side of ourselves we might have not even acknowledged to ourselves. It is this part of ourselves that fosters anger and pride and lust. It is this side of ourselves that may be secretly violent or mean or gossipy. Sometimes it will never make an appearance. It stays in the shadows and lingers there. Sometimes it actually does make itself known. Sometimes it comes plowing into our lives when we neither expect it nor want it. But as much we try to deny it or ignore it or hide it, the fact is; we can’t hide this dark side from God.
It’s incredible really when you think about it: that God, who knows even that shadow side of us—that side of us we might not even fully know ourselves—God who knows us even that completely still loves us and is with us. Few of us lay that shadow self before God. But the Psalmist does, in fact bring it out before God. The Psalmist wails and complains to God and lays bare that shadow side of him or herself. The Psalmist is blatantly honest before God.
The fact is: sometimes we do secretly wish bad things on our enemies. Sometimes we do wish God would render evil on those who are evil to us. Sometimes we do hope that God will completely wipe away those people who hurt us from our lives.
It is in those moments, that it is all right to pray to God in such a way. Because the fact is—as I hope we’ve all learned by now—just because we pray for it doesn’t mean God is going to grant it. God knows what to grant in prayer. And why. The important thing here is not what we are praying for. It is not important that in this Psalm we are praying for God to destroy our enemies.
It is important that, even in our anger, even in our frustration and our pain, we have come to God. We have come before God as this imperfect person. We have come to God with a long dark shadow trailing us.
I have heard people say that we shouldn’t pray these difficult passages of the Psalms because they are “bad theology” or “bad psychology.” They are neither. They are actually good theology and good psychology. Take what it is hurting you and bothering you and release it. Let it out before God. Be honest with God about these bad things. Even if your anger is directed at God for whatever reason, be honest with God. Rail and rant and rave at God in your anger. Trust me, God can take it.
But, the Psalms teach us as well that once we have done that—once we have opened ourselves completely to God—once we have revealed our shadows to God—then we must turn to God and turn away from that shadow self. See what we find in today’s Psalm after that little verse that may have caught us?
I will offer you a freewill sacrifice
and praise your name, O LORD, for it is good.
See, it is good theology and it’s good psychology. It’s good theology because we are being open and honest in our relationship with God. And it is good psychology because we not carrying around that psychological baggage that can hurt us and eventually destroy us.
Hatred and anger and pain are things that, in the long run, hurt us and destroy us. At some point, as we all know, we must grow beyond whatever anger we might have. We must not get caught in that self-destructive cycle anger can cause. We must not allow those negative feelings to make us bitter.
So, when we pray these psalms together and we come across those verses that might take by alarm, let us recognize in them what they truly are—honest prayers before God
The Anglican theologian Simon Jones, who also happens to be an Oblate of the Anglican Benedictine monastery of Elmore Abbey, writes,
“[The psalms]…give the community which prays them permission to be itself before God, a voice to express itself before God and, not least, an ear to hear the voice of God.”
Let these psalms—these lamenting, angry psalms, as well as the joyful, exultant psalms—be our voice expressing itself before God. And in the echo of those words, let us hear God speaking to us in turn. When we do, we will find ourselves in conversation with God. And, in that conversation, we will find that, even despite that shadow side of ourselves, God accepts us fully and completely for who we are.